Looking Past the Cold War

By Elliott Jacobson ’17*

A lot has changed in the international system since the middle of the Cold War, but one thing hasn’t: our relationship with Cuba. The United States still refuses to engage in diplomatic relations with Cuba and the State Department officially considers it a sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. embargo on Cuba is unreasonable and a clear relic of the past, and steps should be taken to relax sanctions and develop a relationship with our island neighbor.

In recent years, Cuba has seen significant economic growth. This year, Cuba opened a new port in Mariel which will allow the nation to handle a much higher volume of trade. The port, which is located on the northern side of Cuba, is perfectly situated to handle cargo from the United States, but such traffic will have to wait until the embargo is lifted. Cuba already receives some food from the U.S., but Cuba could turn into a valuable trade partner given its close proximity to Florida. Other nations are investing in Cuba’s future, and the US should not be left behind.

When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Cuba was among the first to respond with aid and doctors. More recently, Cuba has famously been among the top contributors of aid to Africa to help fight the outbreak of Ebola. Cuba understands the impact of devoting resources to humanitarian crises, but the U.S. refuses to acknowledge Cuba’s place in the international system.

In the past Cuba was a well-known route for narcotics to flow from South America into the U.S.. Recently however, Cuba has taken dramatic steps to bring this traffic to a halt by increasing patrols. As a communist state, Cuba’s policies against drugs are very strict and actually fall in line with the U.S.’ stance on drugs. If Cuba is unable to catch a boat carrying drugs north, it will provide the U.S. Coast Guard with information about the vessel. This cooperation serves as  an example of how important Cuba could be to the U.S.’ vital national interests.

One of the most important advantages the U.S. enjoys is its geopolitical isolation and safety. By maintaining healthy relationships with all our neighbors, we can focus on projecting our power overseas. Latin American leaders seem ready to welcome Cuba back into the international system, and Cuba has been invited to the seventh Summit of the Americas in 2015. Only Canada and the U.S. have objected to Cuba’s invitation. As Latin America becomes closer to Cuba, the U.S. must decide if holding onto decades-old animosity is rational.

Ending the embargo on Cuba has historically been tricky because of Cuban-American voters in Florida. Florida has 29 electoral votes and is therefore always an important swing state during national elections. Because Cuban-American voters in Florida have traditionally been opposed to reducing sanctions on Cuba, the issue has not seen support from either the Democrat or Republican Party. However, this could change as a younger generation of Cuban-Americans wonder why the embargo still exists. Tradition will not be able to guide domestic politics indefinitely, and the changing political climate in Florida will soon allow serious talks about winding sanctions down and improving diplomatic relations.

Even without the U.S. Congress, the president has some options to improve relations with Cuba. The president uniquely represents the country as its leader and can direct public interest in a way other elected officials can’t. The president has the power to dramatically reshape the way the American public views Cuba, an important first step that would encourage other politicians to take more modern stances on the issue. As the most important actor when it comes to foreign affairs, the president could also improve diplomatic relations with Cuba by holding talks with its government and collaborating more directly on projects in South America, such as with Columbia and its  war on drugs. By encouraging public support for Cuba, the president would be maneuvering the nation towards a more modern stance on Cuba.

To be sure, there are still those who argue that the U.S. embargo on Cuba is still relevant and necessary. These people will  argue that Cuba is still a dictatorship, and that the U.S. has an interest and a responsibility to always promote  democracy in Latin America. In addition, there are still valid complaints of human rights abuses in Cuba. The government imposes strict censorship of all forms on media and freedom of assembly. Cuba also still occasionally acts contrary to the interests of the U.S.. In 2013, a ship bound for North Korea from Cuba was intercepted in Panama, where illegal arms and military equipment were found onboard. International sanctions prohibit the sale of arms to North Korea, so this situation was especially difficult for U.S.-Cuba relations.

While these concerns are valid, they stem from the U.S. having inadequate influence over the island government. Clearly, sanctions have not achieved their desired results in Cuba. As the rest of Latin America moves closer to Cuba, the U.S. needs to reevaluate its approach. By promoting diplomatic relations and cooperation, the president has the power to increase public interest in normalizing relations with Cuba, especially when the idea of closing Guantanamo Bay has never been as widely supported as it is now. A more friendly political climate on the issue would allow steps to be taken towards eventually ending the embargo and establishing a much more powerful network of influence over Cuba. We know Cuba is ready to become an ally of the U.S. and work with us on important issues in Latin America. Now it is our turn to act.

*We received this submission before the Obama administration’s diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba on December 17th, 2014 which included the easing of travel and economic sanctions. However we still believe this piece is important and timely because it speaks to the reasons that potentially drove the administration to reestablish relations with Cuba–and the obstacles that may lay ahead in maintaining these relations.